On a Saturday night in October, inside Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Cochrane, Ont., a gospel jamboree was in full swing.
“Almost everyone was playing a musical instrument or shaking something—we had percussion instruments, guitar, you name it,” says Archdeacon Deborah Lonergan-Freake, administrator for the diocese of Moosonee.“The singing—there was Cree, and Irish, Celtic stuff…It was beautiful.”
The impromptu worship session came at the end of the third term of the Moosonee School of Ministry, a new initiative in the diocese of Moosonee that is putting many of its lay leaders on a path to further theological study and ordination. [The diocese of Moosonee is a mission area of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario and is under the spiritual care of the provincial metropolitan or senior bishop.]
The idea for the school, which will finish its fourth term this January, came into being through conversation between Bishop (ret.) Tom Corston, assistant bishop of the diocese of Moosonee, and Archbishop Colin Johnson, metropolitan of the province of Ontario, who is also bishop of Moosonee and bishop of Toronto. While travelling together, Corston says, the two were discussing the difficulty of drawing seminary-trained clergy to the diocese.
“We are a Council of the North diocese, and our stipends are not high enough to attract people to come into the North, especially from southern Ontario,” Corston explains. He and Johnson realized that the fairly small and remote, mainly Indigenous communities that made up the diocese could potentially be facing a chronic shortage of trained and ordained clergy.
Corston suggested that they look within the diocese for leadership. “There are a lot of good lay leaders in our communities. Why don’t we work at training them up locally?”
The idea was brought before the Moosonee’s theological education task force, and after numerous meetings, visioning calls and teleconferences, the plan came together for the Moosonee School of Ministry.
When Corston sent out an initial letter to the diocese explaining the school, he says, he expected to receive maybe a dozen responses. Instead, 32 students registered. He says the response was “beyond our wildest imagination.”
Though the diocese has long encouraged people to attend theological institutions, it is not always feasible, says Lonergan-Freake. Travel from northern communities is expensive, and in some cases, means leaving families and full-time jobs behind. Unlike the alternative, online courses, the Moosonee School of Ministry offers the ability to connect with others in the diocese and learn with a group of peers.
The school consisted of four terms over the course of a year, each condensed into a three-day weekend in Cochrane. These busy weekends were packed with three-hour lectures from speakers from the diocese and across Canada. Along with a curriculum including Scripture, liturgy and church history, each term had a component of Indigenous teaching, on topics such as Indigenous spirituality and history.
Between these weekends, students were also required to complete fieldwork in their home parishes.
Both Corston and Lonergan-Freake say they are thrilled with the commitment the students have made to the program. For some students, it takes two days of driving to travel to Cochrane. Many already volunteer a lot of time to their parishes, and took on school work as an additional commitment.
Grace Delaney is one of these committed students. Affiliated with the Wemindji Cree First Nation, she lives in Moose Factory, Ont., where she serves on the vestry and as people’s warden of the parish of St. Thomas.
Delaney, who has been involved in the parish since she began teaching Sunday school in 1975, says in an email interview that even before she was licensed as a lay reader, she was assisting in services and preaching sermons. After becoming licensed, she began doing visitations to the sick and bereaved as well. She has led family services and funeral services.
“I decided to enroll in the Moosonee School of Ministry because I was doing all these things for the parish that I hadn’t been trained in, and wasn’t sure if I was doing them right,” she says.
For her fieldwork placement, Delaney held dinners for widows in the community to come together and process their experiences. “It was well-received, and some have asked if we could keep doing it. I hope it’s something we can carry on, my co-lay leader and I…Since we are both widows, we felt it was a ministry we needed in our community…we understand and can empathize with that group.”
Other students have balanced the school workload with a career in a secular field. Anne-Marie Carrière, 33, from Kapuskasing, Ont., is a residential counsellor and court support worker at a women’s shelter. A regular attendee and active member of her church, she says she felt God wanted her to take on theological studies as a way to step out of her comfort zone.
The structure of the school program has allowed her to keep her job while studying, and given her “time to go home and apply these new teachings, really absorb it all,” Carrière says in an email interview. She has also been able to “build a strong network” by meeting fellow students.
Attending the school has had a profound impact on her faith, Carrière says, “I was invited into a deeper relationship with God. This journey has allowed me, first and foremost, to really reflect, pray and listen. I learned not just that I was being called, but more how I was being called to help and make a difference.”
Carrière says that she intends to continue studying and will take the next steps toward ordination.
The curriculum of the school was set up to fulfill the requirements of the diocese of Moosonee’s already existent diploma for ministry.
“We’re not giving our students a complete theological education,” Corston explains. “We’re giving them the basis that they can use, and which we hope that they will use, to further their education on their own.”
For those who wish to become ordained, the next step will be attending a “discernment weekend” in Cochrane, which Corston says is based on the national ACPO (Advisory Committee on Postulants for Ordination) process.
Others will continue to serve their home parishes in a lay capacity.
Delaney, who is 67, is not sure whether she will pursue ordination. “I have many a time in my lifetime heard the call, but at the same time I’ve always wondered: ‘Did I wait too long?’ I see ministers, bishops, archbishops—who aren’t even as old as I am—are retiring.” She reflects on the period in her life spent in a residential school, when she “lived in fear” and felt that the connection to God that she had experienced so strongly as a child was suppressed. It was not until her 20s, she says, that she “reconnected with the Spirit that holds us together.”
Through the school, Delaney says, she learned a great deal.
“The impact it made in my faith and life would be, now that I have this knowledge, how do I use it? What does God want for his people for whom he may want to use me as his instrument to serve?”
Corston says the diocese is happy with how the school has evolved. The original plan, he says, was to run a school every two years, “but we got so many students…there can’t be many left!” He says they are planning to evaluate regularly how many people would be interested in the school and run it “as the need arises.”
The school was funded by the diocese of Moosonee, grants from Council of the North, the New England Company and the Anglican Foundation of Canada, as well as individual donations.
The diocese also runs MahMow Kiskinuhumahsohtaw, a training program for Cree lay readers, and holds an annual Watershed Lay Readers’ Conference for parishes in the southern part of the diocese.
“We want to support the ministry of our very faithful lay leaders, who have worked, in some cases, for years in their parishes. They’re recognized as elders and church leaders,” says Lonergan-Freake. She thinks the school has done this well. “It meets the people where they’re at, and it meets the diocese where it’s at.”